Perhaps nothing has done more to solidify to me what a remarkable, thoughtful fandom this one is than the response to Love, Tolerance, and Other Myths from earlier this month.
It was a fairly straightforward concept—there were really just two points in it that I was trying to make, namely that 1) the “Love and Tolerance” meme is something created by the fan community to capture its own unique dynamic, and not something directly preached by the show; and that 2) the show’s message of friendship is centered on rather different principles—indeed, profoundly different—than many other shows that have more directly espoused “tolerance” as a theme.
Yet the response has been tremendously widespread and energetic, both to agree with it and in many cases to take issue with specific parts of the piece’s premise. All this feedback is invigorating, and a lot of it warrants some specific responses and clarifications. Yet ultimately what it’s told me, at a high level, is that the fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are a well-reasoned bunch of folks who genuinely relish the chance to apply some serious analysis to this inspiring, thought-provoking show.
Hit the break for more. I promise I’ll try to make this worth the read.
Dear Princess Celestia, You’ll never guess what I learned today…
What does “tolerance” mean, really?
It’s one of those words that has a loaded context in modern society. There are a lot of competing, loosely related meanings to it, and in a piece in which one of my main goals was to get fans of the show to carefully consider their definitions, I didn’t exactly spend any time defining the word as I planned to use it.
The big disconnect for me with this article is that I don’t think “tolerance” means “accepting something unconditionally” at all. Tolerating someone does not automatically entail accepting all their flaws, or having to agree with them, but rather accepting them as people, accepting that they may have different viewpoints, and giving them the same respect that you would want from them. If someone does something bad, of course you should stand up for yourself; tolerating a person is not the same as tolerating an act, and one does not necessarily include the other.
I conflated the term as used by bronies with the same term as used by well-meaning politicians and parental activism groups, and in the process muddled my point. I hope I can rectify that here.
In the context of the infamous meme image and catchphrase—”I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out of you”—that has gained such currency as to appear on T-shirts worn by members of the show staff appearing on stage at Bronycon, “tolerance” is a rather unique construct. It’s being appropriated by bronies as a defense mechanism against those troublesome interlopers who would mock pony fans for their choice in entertainment. It’s this usage that dates back to the earliest days of the pony fandom, when surreptitious fans of the show faced real backlash over it in their Internet hangouts of choice. “Haters” and “trolls”, in those early months, before pony fandom had really taken root as a recognizable phenomenon with its own momentum and cultural footprint, enjoyed a target-rich environment in any forum thread full of pony avatars and meme images. It was all too easy to mock pony fans for their unashamed enjoyment of a “girly” cartoon. Out came their most biting sarcasm, their most dull-witted one-word epithets, and every intervening verbal and textual weapon that fell to hand. The pony fans wouldn’t know what hit them.
Yet the response that the pony fandom collectively invented was, as the phrase has since been canonized, “love and tolerance”. It was a statement of non-engagement, of refusal to escalate. Rather than responding to the trolls with defensiveness or invective or by fleeing the field, pony fans would meet trolls’ onslaught with smiles and an outstretched hand. Like the flower children of the 1960s putting daisies in soldiers’ gun barrels, bronies refused to meet violence (metaphorically speaking) with violence.
Lo and behold, it worked—and therein, I’m sure, lies much of the pride that pony fans feel for the “Love & Tolerance” catchphrase, and the reason why many espouse it today, even knowing that it has little to nothing to do with the show itself. The trolls and the haters largely disappeared. Pony fans found their own hangouts, separating themselves from the communities that divided themselves along pony-neutral or pony-hostile lines, and forming pony-centric communities that effectively barred outsiders from having to confront the candy-colored equines to begin with. Bronies had their own self-sustaining community now, and there was no longer any need to clash with those who found them annoying. The only artifact of that era when such clashes were common was, in fact, the phrase “Love & Tolerance” itself. Small wonder that it, like a Che Guevara T-shirt, has outlived its original significance in many fans’ eyes.
It’s funny to think that a fandom that’s barely two years old is in a position to look back on its early days with such a sense of nostalgic indulgence.
With that meaning of the word tolerance established, however, let me now explain how I meant to apply it to the point at hand, namely the point that tolerance as envisioned by forum-dwelling bronies isn’t a theme that can be mined from some rich vein in the show itself.
Bronies meant tolerance to suggest an unwillingness to escalate a confrontation, a refusal to “feed the trolls”. It wasn’t meant to imply the word’s typical after-school-special meaning of “non-prejudice”, the one that makes modern consumers of culture roll their eyes at ham-handed attempts to instill kids with an aversion to racism and other forms of bigotry. These two meanings seemingly have little in common, and that’s at the root of a lot of the well-reasoned but pointed comments that the earlier piece received.
My intended meaning of tolerance is a little bit different from both these flavors. I take it, more generally, to mean this: Either you’re tolerating something, or you’re making sure there are consequences for it.
Hence my example of characters like Gilda and Trixie, whose behaviors are, indeed, intolerable. The position taken by the show in their cases is that the things they do don’t deserve to be received with indulgent understanding; the ponies shouldn’t just turn the other cheek and allow them to get away with their actions. Instead, they react. They escalate. They take a stand against people and actions they find unworthy of their standards, and unlike the bronies in the forums and their flower-child forebears, they use every weapon in their usually slapstick-comic arsenal, pulling no punches and sticking to their message that true friendship must be earned and deserved. On some other show, a group hug might have melted Gilda’s heart and turned her into a friend to all Ponyville; but that’s not FiM’s style.
To be sure, the show is full of examples of what anyone would be justified in calling tolerance. But that’s just it: very nearly any show on TV has those kinds of elements in it, to one degree or another—especially among shows aimed at kids. One of the nearly obligatory features of a prospective kids’ show is a diverse ensemble of characters from wildly different backgrounds, all getting along together and demonstrating the inherent value of looking past one another’s differences to appreciate the unique people they all are and how they contribute to each other’s well-being and happiness. In that regard, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is all but archetypical of the genre. (When has there been another show whose heterogeneous central cast formed such a tight bond that not only did it form the namesake of the show itself, it inspired untold thousands of adult fans to fall in love with the very idea of friendship being literally a form of magic?) Yet you could easily say the same of any of dozens of other shows, many of which are on the air right now—Pound Puppies, Winx Club, Strawberry Shortcake’s Berry Bitty Adventures. Those are every bit as much about social, friendly tolerance as Pony is. But something makes Pony rather fundamentally different—different enough that the interactions of the ponies in the cast inspires us all to frequent Tumblr blogs and DeviantArt galleries and dedicated pony discussion forums in an insatiable quest for more, more, more of these characters. There’s something about this show, beyond the characters themselves, that seems downright novel.
Which brings me to my second point.
No, the show is not about prejudice and hatred either
Some readers have taken issue with my statement that FiM is decidedly not about tolerance—that it is, indeed, very nearly about its opposite. Now, I want to be clear about what I’m saying here, because this is an easily misinterpreted position.
My argument is that Pony is designed along very different lines from what the status quo of children’s entertainment had become in recent years—after all, that’s a big part of Lauren Faust’s stated goal for the show, creating a whole new status quo for entertainment aimed at girls. She wasn’t satisfied with what was on the air when she was growing up, and she knew all along that she could do better. The adventures of her own plastic pony toys in her bedroom were testament enough to that. But while Faust was fortunate enough (or tenacious enough) to parlay the exercises of her own youthful imagination into an opportunity to turn them into a real, live cartoon funded by a real, live entertainment company, we all know innately where she was coming from. We all had toys based on licensed properties whose TV incarnations left something to be desired, and we filled in the gaps from our own minds, drawing on our own schoolyard adventures. We enriched the stories behind our favorite fictional characters by giving them our own fanciful backstories. We gave them our own voices in our heads and our own invented motivations that had no basis in their corporate-established canon. We set them against each other in nonsensical pitched battles spanning whatever fictional universes were represented in our disorganized toychests and closets.
My brother and I maintained a years-long narrative centered on two of the Battle Beasts (the Beaver and the Bat) and a lone and unidentified G.I. Joe figure, whom we recast as a contentious nuclear family of circus freaks who built (out of LEGO) a technological monstrosity of a mountain base and recruited a ragtag army of other miscellaneous toys with which to fight against the evil M.U.S.C.L.E. men.
…Come on. I know it wasn’t just us who did stuff like this.
All this ill-advised soul-baring has a point. It’s that one thing all this chaotic mishmashing we all did as kids with our reappropriated corporate properties has in common is that we added conflict.
Conflict is at the heart of good character development. We all have understood this innately, just as Lauren Faust did when envisioning her ponies from their 80s-TV roots into something altogether more vibrant and fun in her own mind. And when she translated those characters and stories from her own imagination into the TV show we all know, she kept that conflict intact.
Critically, I’m not talking about the kind of fairy-tale antagonism that unites bands of adventurers in opposition to some monstrous villain in a dark tower. I’m talking about real conflict here, the kind that real people struggle with every day as part of their jobs and social lives. Personality clashes. Prejudice. Jealousy. Inadequacy. Arrogance. The kinds of ingredients that add texture to interactions between real people; the kinds of things we only become familiar with through the social encounters that begin in grade school. Some of these things we eventually learn to live with; others we fight with our whole lives. But they all contribute to what makes us all such different people—and what makes some kinds of “diversity” different from others.
Some differences, we learn, should be tolerated, even embraced. Others, however—not so much.
Whereas plenty of shows that more baldly adopt terms like “tolerance” among their stated values generally tend to do so with broad, bland illustrations of people in a group learning to get along with each other by overcoming their irrational prejudices and recognizing the unique value each of them adds, FiM makes its characters go through a generally more nuanced and uneven process. At the end of this process might stand acceptance of some character and his or her quirks, or it might turn out that such a character is irredeemable and can’t—shouldn’t—be tolerated.
This is what I believe is novel about FiM as a children’s show, and ultimately why tolerance is a silly and reductive badge to pin to it. The characters are just as likely to not tolerate some new interloper as to welcome him or her into their circle; and the choice they make as likely as not turns out to be a mistake. The stories these ponies tell are all different in their own way, and the characters they meet represent a broad range of tolerability (for lack of a better word)—from the repugnant behavior of the teenage dragons in “Dragon Quest” to the misunderstood wisdom of the mysterious but benevolent Zecora or the well-intentioned Princess Luna and her atrophied social graces; from the ambivalently irredeemable Gilda and Trixie to the bombastic but ultimately benign form of therapy offered by Iron Will (poor guy’s just trying to make a living). Even the fake changeling Princess Cadance is an object lesson in how too much tolerance, too much giving someone the benefit of the doubt, can lead to ruin; if it weren’t for Twilight’s seemingly irrational prejudice against her brother’s new fiancée and her ambiguously suspicious behavior, Canterlot would have fallen, its inhabitants made the prey of Queen Chrysalis and her army of love-vampires. All because every pony except Twilight was just too tolerant.
I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out of you—
or perhaps I won’t
All these examples are to illustrate that yes, there’s tolerance on display in Friendship is Magic—but not because it’s some banner virtue that the show seeks to drive home over and over. Rather, it’s seen in the show with just about the same frequency with which it becomes relevant in the real world—as an ingredient in mature social behavior, not a principle to override all others. The show isn’t trying to tell kids to tolerate people who are different, any more than it’s telling them to eat their vegetables or not to accept candy from strangers. These are lessons that might come up from time to time, sure, just like an episode might end with a letter to Princess Celestia extolling the virtues of empathy or of compromise or of you and your friends being connected since childhood by a mystical Sonic Rainboom. But to say that tolerance is a message that runs through the canon like some kind of fundamental premise-level theme is to miss the point of the show entirely, and to relegate it to a category of oversimplified, predictable kids’ TV entertainment whose lame company it simply doesn’t deserve.
Commenter Cole Daigneault says:
All that being said, I think that the author’s main point was that this form of tolerance is a very poor description for a show that in actuality is entirely against such dystopian silence. The author wanted to point out that the motto was never meant to describe the show, but became something that did, at least to outsiders. This misrepresentation makes it easy for journalists who know absolutely nothing about the show or its community coming in to think that the only reason any of us like the show is for this old, overused, unremarkable reason that’s been done countless times before. This has a negative effect on the brony community because in the journalist’s eyes, this eliminates the possibility that our passion comes from any merit the show itself has, and that therefore the truth must be that there must be something wrong with bronies that makes us like the show.
That’s exactly right. All I’m doing here is expressing some dismay at the idea that a “Love & Tolerate” T-shirt might come to be symbolic of bronies and, through the work of well-meaning journalists and documentarians like Michael Brockhoff, the show itself. While it might sound like a fine thing that the general public comes to think that we legions of fans are congregating around a My Little Pony show because it’s about wholesome messages like love and tolerance, it’s just not convincing. It’s weak sauce. It implies that we could have fallen for any show that espoused these values, which clearly isn’t the case.
Ultimately it sends a misleading message that undermines bronies’ perceived coherence. To put it another way: how much can you trust the word of someone who says he supports some sports hero or actor or activist because he “fights for what he believes in”? Wouldn’t that make him equally a fan of some of history’s greatest monsters?
Let’s make sure the media coverage of the brony phenomenon focuses on the show as much as on the fans—if only to try to convey with appropriate depth why it is that we enjoy it so much. Deep down, I’m sure we all know that if it’s a reason that can fit on a T-shirt, it’s not a good enough reason. ■